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Giving thanks in the middle of the storm

Last year Enjee Barrios, 41, came to Coffee Break Bible study at Covenant CRC in St. Catharines, Ontario, and joined my small group. When I met her, I was struck by her joy. I knew nothing about the crises she had weathered. Neither did I realize how, through pain, she had learned to give thanks to God in the middle of the storm.

Enjee immigrated to Canada from Guatemala when she was a teenager, leaving behind a community and country that she loved. Though she struggled with dyslexia, she became a Montessori school teacher. All went well for many years. But, then it seemed that her life spiralled out of control.

I’ve asked Enjee to tell her story – a narrative of loss, despair and pain transformed by God’s Spirit into a story of joy and thanksgiving.
—SVF

***

Five years ago, when I lived in Toronto with my husband Osvaldo and our sons Samuel and Joshua, I awoke with intense pain in my feet – it felt as if I had a broken bone. Osvaldo took me to the hospital, tests were performed, but the doctor concluded that there was no reason for concern.

So, Osvaldo and I returned to work. I was at the peak of my career as a Montessori school teacher. I earned a fantastic salary and taught an excellent group of students. My boss was pleased with my work.

However, I became more ill and the pain almost paralysed me. My family doctor sent me for many tests; I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, which affected my joints and nerves. By then I was spending so much money on medicine – about $1000 weekly – so other bills started piling up.

Osvaldo and I were forced to consider the best way forward. I could no longer work. Paying off a mortgage in Toronto with only one salary was impossible. We decided to move to a place where we could find affordable housing and a cheaper lifestyle. It was difficult to let go of the things we had worked so hard for. Not only that, but our friends and our church, which we had attended for 13 years, were an important part of our life in that neighborhood.

We started searching for a new home. I wanted to move close to my family in one direction, but my husband wanted to move to the Niagara region. We visited both locations to view open houses, but we couldn’t agree on anything. More important, we couldn’t afford any of the homes we visited.

My health steadily deteriorated, making every task difficult to perform. I had a hard time dressing and bathing myself. My body was so swollen that I didn’t look like myself anymore. My spirit and soul were sick, full of darkness and hopelessness.   

One particularly dark day, Osvaldo decided we should drive to a few open houses in the Niagara region. I wasn’t happy about that. I had developed a manipulation technique. As we were driving around, I would fall “asleep” to avoid seeing the houses. Osvaldo is almost like a GPS – he never gets lost. But while I was “sleeping,” I could feel that we were driving in circles. I “woke up” and asked him if we were lost. Of course, he said we weren’t. But we were lost! Little did we know that getting lost was part of God’s master plan for us.

We arrived at an open house. I agreed to go inside. It was ugly, dirty and old! But at the entrance, two ladies greeted us with smiles. So far no one had come to look at the house, they said. Then they surprised us by saying that they had been praying for someone to come and, as they prayed, they understood that the Lord was going to send someone who needed their help. The realtor, whom we later came to know as Pam, said, “How can we help you? Ask us what you need. The Lord is in the middle of this conversation.”

The women had no idea that we were Christians. They knew nothing about our story. After we talked awhile, Pam offered to show us other houses that would be more suitable for us. Eventually, we found a pretty white house that used to be a farm house in St. Catharines. The price was higher than we could afford, but for the first time we felt led to put in an offer, significantly less than the asking price. We received a counter offer; it was two dollars more than we had saved. The owner also added a note saying that he had agreed to sell us the house because he felt like practising charity.

You would think that this miracle would bring me joy, contentment and hope. But it didn’t. Instead, I was growing weary of living in my painful body. I had gained 50 pounds. The permanent pain had created a different look on my face. I started to think that the only way things could get better would be if I were to die. I felt that I was a burden to everyone, even though I had a supportive family – Osvaldo, my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law were praying constantly for me and telling me how much they loved me.

But nothing worked. My desire to die increased. I planned exactly how I was going to die. I put my paper work in order and organized my house. I contacted family and friends to tell them how much I loved them. When everything was “ready,” I decided  the day had arrived. I was nervous and scared and crying. While driving to the spot I had selected, I saw a lineup of ladies and a sign that said ‘Women 4 Women’ and ‘Free Hair Cuts.’

My first thought was that I would like to have my hair cut to look nice for my funeral. I stood in line. But when my turn arrived, the hairdresser told me she was finished for the morning. I wept. She comforted me, offering to cut my hair at her home later that afternoon. Though I was annoyed that my plan had been interrupted, I decided to go. Another woman told me about counselling services offered by Niagara Life Centre. I went home to wait for my appointment and called the counselling centre. The receptionist said I could come the next day. Again, I was frustrated that my plan was being delayed.

Later, I cried inconsolably as the hairdresser told me about her life – a testimony of hope and restoration. Angie’s story was so similar to mine. She was living in pain too. But she was an open book for the Holy Spirit to write on. I was touched by the Holy Spirit as she prayed for me and hugged me. In that moment, I felt that the Lord had never stopped loving me, that he desired to help me and that I had hope for tomorrow.

The next day I went to the Niagara Life Centre and received help. Though my health wasn’t improving, my spirit began to heal. Ephesians 5:14 – “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” – described what I was experiencing. The darkness was disappearing. I felt the Lord’s embrace again. Things started to light up.

I joined Coffee Break, where I feel loved and happy. The Lord brought into my life people who inspire me. I have made peace with God and myself. I feel complete. At times I still feel down, but by God’s grace I’m able to come out of that place. I find joy in small things like my garden and a sunset. I praise the Lord because I know that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

God is still at work in me, but I have found joy and peace in the middle of my storm. I found my resting spot in God’s hand, knowing that he will provide everything I need – like he did when I was transferred to another specialist who advocated for me to receive a disability pension and full coverage for all my prescription drugs! I give thanks for my life and for God’s mercy. I’m thankful for every breath he gives me.                    

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